Renters Are Spending More Of Their Incomes On Rent Than Any Time In Recent History
The Debrief: When a country’s housing market is this sick does it follows that its society is also suffering
Bricks and mortar. Bricks and mortar. These are the humble, everyday materials which hold our country together. Everybody needs a place to live but, today, in London and increasingly much of the United Kingdom housing is an expensive, often out of reach, financial asset and not a basic right.
Home is where you wake up every day and go to sleep every night. It is the one place in the world where, when you shut the door, you are supposed to be safe. It is your sanctuary. It is where the most important bits of you emotional and physical life happen.
So, when a country’s housing market is sick does it follow that its society is, also, suffering? Superficially, if the turn-the-other-cheek of several successive governments over recent decades is a litmus test then the answer is, simply, no. But, if you look a little closer, then it’s obvious that Britain currently faces a very acute housing crisis which is spreading, setting in and worsening like black mould on damp silicone sealant in a basement flat.
This year’s annual English Housing Survey confirms this. One of the key findings is that the number of households who are renting privately (because they can’t afford to buy) is continuing to grow. There are now 4.5million in the private rental sector, that’s almost double the size it was a decade ago (ago (2.4m in 2005/6).
This, in and of itself, wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for other concurrent problems. There are other European countries where people rent as opposed to buy property. However, the problem Britain faces on this front can be summed up by the survey’s findings that 66% of those private renters report having no savings to fall back on. ‘Is this because they are feckless and indigent’ I hear the landlords, letting agents and ignorant cry at the back? No, it’s because, on average, these private renters spend twice as much of their monthly income on housing costs (41%) than people who own their own homes (19%). Unsurprisingly, this rises to 56% in London.
We, as a nation, have a massive problem. People don’t, generally, rent out of choice. They rent because they can’t afford more stable housing options. Two-thirds of all renters (65%) said that affordability was the main barrier to buying their own home. The proportion of private renters who told the Survey this increased from 56% in 2008/9 to 70% in 2015/2016. The Survey also found that being a private renter is the most expensive form of housing, costing, on average, £184 a week.
Renting, once the mainstay of students, has fast become the new normal for people on low and middle incomes. The English Housing Survey paints a very ‘grim picture of private renting’ as Kate Webb, the Head of Policy and Research at Shelter, puts it. ‘People’ she says, are being forced to ‘fork out so much of their monthly pay packet on rent that they have absolutely nothing left.’
The problem with the private rental sector is that it is unstable, unregulated and, by and large, fundamentally unfair. Landlords hold all the cards. Many believe they are offering a service but, ultimately, they are in it to make money. The buy-to-let boom of the 90s and 00s coupled with the fetishisation of housing as a good investment for the upper middle classes looking to make a good return has corrupted and overheated the housing market. As things stand, we can’t be far off reaching boiling point.
As Webb explains, it is because of a total lack of genuinely affordable homes to buy which has been ‘decades in the making’ that millions of people are now left with ‘no alternative but expensive and unstable private renting. Every day at Shelter’, she says, ‘we hear from renters struggling with short contracts and constantly terrified of the next rent rise.’
Last year, following The Debrief’s campaign to Make Renting Fair, letting agency fees for tenants were banned. Now we need longer and more secure rental contracts for all renters and good quality homes that are actually affordable for people on low incomes. Millions of people have been left behind by this country’s housing crisis, while a few have profited.
If home is where the heart is then Britain’s main artery is clogged and in urgent need of serious, life-saving surgery because, if it gets much worse, we’re going to flatline. Bricks and mortar hold us together, but they're also driving us apart as our society is increasingly divided into home owners, landlords and renters. Should anyone be able to buy up multiple houses until everyone has one, stable home?
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